As observers of Objectivism know, schisms are a perennial part of the world of Objectivism. In particular, the “official Objectivism” going back to Ayn Rand, which has continued into today with the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI), has been particularly prone to dust-ups, breaks, and even excommunications. I don’t know of any sociological studies of schisms that might shed light on this, but there may be a couple reasons. First, Objectivism is a relatively small movement, and most people tend to know each other. This means that disputes will tend to become personal. Second, many associates of Ayn Rand are still alive. Hence protecting her legacy in their eyes likely heightens the gravity of any disputes.
The biggest schism in the Objectivist movement was Ayn Rand’s break in 1968 with Nathaniel and Barbara Branden. The Brandens were the chief promoters of Objectivism, particularly through the Nathaniel Branden Institute. While the details remain somewhat obscure, the rupture began because Nathaniel and Rand had years earlier commenced an affair which eventually grew cold. When Rand wanted to restart the affair, the much younger Branden balked at this, in large part because he was having an affair with a beautiful young model and actress, which he concealed from Rand for years. When Rand found out about his affair, she denounced Nathaniel in her own inimitable way. In her “To Whom It May Concern Statement,” she never mentioned that she and Branden had an affair, nor Branden’s clandestine affair with the model. She went on to denounce him for failing to devote his efforts to advance Objectivism and she all but accused him of stealing from her. She did hint that Nathaniel had betrayed her in an unspecified way:
This year, in a long series of discussions, held at his request to help him solve what he characterized as his psycho-epistemological problems, I was shocked to discover that he was consistently failing to apply to his own personal life and conduct, not only the fundamental philosophical principles of Objectivism, but also the psychological principles he himself had enunciated and had written and lectured about. For example: he was unable or unwilling to identify the motivation of some of his actions or the nature of his long-range goals; he admitted that in many respects he was acting on the basis of unidentified feelings.
As Nathaniel later wrote in his memoir, Rand’s attack was so “over the top” that people suspected that he was an alcoholic or a child molester. Both Nathaniel and Barbara responded, countering Rand’s allegations of wrongdoing. Nathaniel hinted that there had been an affair and conceded that he concealed something important of Rand. He explicitly denied her allegations of financial wrongdoing.
After the Branden split, there were other schisms during Rand’s life. After her death, Leonard Peikoff, Rand’s self-proclaimed “intellectual heir,” started the ARI. Peikoff shortly thereafter split with philosopher David Kelley over Kelley’s contention that Objectivism was an “open system.” Peikoff’s denunciation, in which he purported to speak for Rand, was vitriolic. More splits, generally of a lesser significance, have continue until the present.
The most important recent schism concerned multi-millionaire donor Carl Barney. In 2019, Barney was voted off the Board of Directors by a unanimous vote. He then aligned with Craig Biddle (who had been booted out by Peikoff in 2012). This resulted in the loss of a huge donor and layoffs of close to one third of the ARI’s staff (or so it was reported).
Barney and Biddle issued statement criticizing the ARI, to which the ARI responded. Apparently, the back of forth must have generated a lot of controversy among supporters because ARI president Tal Tsfany asked Onkar Ghate and Harry Binswanger to write a paper on schisms and how to deal with them. Ghate is the “Chief Philosophy Officer” of the ARI and Binswanger a philosopher who was friends with Rand and occasionally purports to speak in her name.
The paper – “Of Schisms, Public and Private”* -- comes across as an excuse, cloaked in philosophical language, for why the ARI shouldn’t respond to allegations of wrongdoing and basically claims that they are always in the right. “Of Schisms” is a somewhat rambling paper, with digressions about the split between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, as well as disputes in the abolitionist movement between William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. The paper makes mention of accusations of wrongdoing against then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Rolling Stone magazine’s reckless attack on the University of Virginia for allegedly ignoring sexual assault.
What all this has to do with the schism at issue isn’t clear, at least to me. The ARI is a tax-exempt nonprofit organization. It raises money from donors who are entitled to assume that their donations are spent wisely and that if the ARI disassociates with someone it is for legitimate reasons.
Interestingly, the paper starts out by insisting that the ARI does not claim to speak for Objectivism and that no person can claim to speak for Ayn Rand. The first claim is a little misleading considering, among other things, that the ARI has issued statements that Ayn Rand would never have voted for Trump. And the ARI must know that Peikoff does claim to speak for Rand.
The paper provides various recommendations for how to handle and judge disputes. I’ll “bullet point” them (the numbering is mine).
1. “As a rule, one should be suspicious of the first side that goes public in a private dispute (or in the part of a dispute that is private).”
2. “Usually, when one side goes public it is an emotional venting, a lashing out. That is sometimes understandable but is still non-objective behavior, and unfair to their own audience.”
3. “When one side in a private conflict does not adequately explain why it is objective for them to go public and why in logic you should side with them against their opponents, their allegations should be dismissed.”
4. “In a court trial, objective processes exist. For example, both sides are required, in the discovery process, to answer questions they may not want to answer, to hand over documents they may not want to hand over. They face penalties if they lie during discovery or on the witness stand, or if they omit, misrepresent, alter, or forge documents. No such procedures exist when one party makes public allegations about a private dispute.”
One problem with this approach is that it conflates everyday disputes with legal proceedings. In all sorts of things in life we make important decisions without the legal trappings of court proceedings, e.g., whom should I marry, should I trust a potential business associate who is rumored to be less than honest, etc. Indeed, the approach evinces a type of agnosticism about matters which the ARI considers immoral. If truth is indeed “contextual” as ARI philosopher often claim, then why shouldn’t we be able to come to a conclusion about these schisms with sufficient certainty?
Curiously, it didn’t occur to Ghate and Binswanger that Rand failed to follow what they consider “objective” methods for engaging in disputes. Rand was the first to go public in a private dispute. She engaged in emotional venting. It wasn’t possible for people to know whether her allegations of financial wrongdoing by Branden had any merit. She didn’t provide the business documents showing that Branden exploited her financially. Nonetheless, she expected Objectivists to side with her and not the Brandens. Her biographers report that she expected her followers to break relations with the Brandens and if they didn’t they were removed from mailing lists. Years later, her attorney Henry Holzer admitted that there was no evidence that Branden was a thief.
Our authors analyze the ARI’s response to the break with John McCaskey. Readers of the blog may remember this schism. In 2010, David Harriman published a book on induction, The Logical Leap. Harriman, who has a master’s degree in physics, had collaborated with Leonard Peikoff to give lectures on the problem of induction. Presumably, Peikoff was mainly responsible for the philosophical portions of the book and Harriman the science portions, although Harriman was listed as the sole author. John McCaskey, who was a member of the ARI’s board, holds a Ph.D. in the philosophy of science from Stanford University. McCaskey had been critical of the book. While he didn’t discuss these concerns with Peikoff, word got to Peikoff, who was livid. McCaskey resigned from the Board and in exchange the board allowed him to publish a letter.
After Peikoff forced McCaskey out, some Objectivists came to McCaskey’s defense, most notably Biddle (who published The Objective Standard, which was the house organ of the ARI) and Diana Hsieh, who was then a prominent ARI associated blogger and podcaster. Peikoff promptly excommunicated them. Yaron Brook, ARI's president, removed himself from The Objective Standard's masthead. ARI scholars ceased writing for Biddle's magazine. Here is Peikoff's Parthian Shot:
... if ... my detractors in this issue represent a sizable faction within the Objectivist movement whose spokesmen include magazine founders and PhDs with podcasts– then God help Objectivism, too.
Peikoff however got wind of McCaskey’s criticism and took it as a personal attack on him. In an incredible email dated August 30 from Peikoff to ARI legal counsel Arline Mann (and cc’d to ARI director Yaron Brook) Peikoff made it clear that someone had to go and it wasn’t going to be him:
"When a great book sponsored by the Institute and championed by me – I hope you still know who I am and what my intellectual status is in Objectivism – is denounced by a member of the Board of the Institute, which I founded someone has to go and will go. It is your prerogative to decide whom.
"I do understand how much money M has brought to ARI, and how many college appointments he has gotten and is still getting. As Ayn would have put it, that raises him one rung in Hell, but it does not convert Objectivism into pragmatism."
Our authors now claim that it was a mistake for the Board to allow McCaskey to publish the email on the ground that there were other (unspecified) reasons for forcing McCaskey out. There might well have been, but unless McCaskey took the letter wildly out of context, it seems certain that his disapproval of the Harriman book was a large reason for his ouster. (There is also circumstantial evidence, as I discuss in my blog post.) In any event, consider the Peikoff letter: does the ARI agree that loyalty to a book that is at most an extension of Objectivism required of ARI scholars? Is Peikoff’s contention consistent with his claim during the Kelley break that Rand’s ideas alone constitute Objectivism and that any extensions (including his) should not be considered part of Objectivism? Does Peikoff’s letter comport with the ARI’s claim that it is not a spokesman for Objectivism? Should future employees and scholars live in fear that they might be “McCaskeyed” for similar conduct? Apparently, these are questions that donors should not ask. And if they do, they shouldn’t expect any answers.
One of the most curious aspects of the essay is the extension of the Objectivist concept of the “arbitrary assertion” to schisms. The arbitrary assertion doctrine was first given explicit treatment in Leonard Peikoff’s, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. However, it was developed by Peikoff earlier. In essence, it says that certain statements lack so little support or are so fanciful that they are neither true nor false but rather “arbitrary.” Or, as the authors say, “It is as though nothing had been said.” Peikoff gave the examples of belief in God and ESP. The first public use that I’m aware of was in the context of Barbara Branden’s 1986 biography Ayn Rand, The Passion of Ayn Rand. Passion was noteworthy for revealing that Nathaniel and Rand had an affair. Shortly after its publication, ARI member Peter Schwartz denounced it as one long arbitrary assertion.
It is only in this context that the question can be raised of whether to believe any of the concrete factual allegations Mrs. Branden makes about Ayn Rand’s behavior. When the truth of such allegations rests entirely upon the testimony of the author (and of unnamed ‘friends’ she regularly cites), one must ask why she is to be believed when she has thoroughly destroyed her claim to credibility. It is very easy to accuse the dead of almost anything. I could readily assert that Ayn met with me at dawn on the first Thursday of every month to join me in secret prayer at a Buddhist temple—and who could disprove it if I maintained that no one else knew about it?
Branden was Rand’s closest female friend for 18 years and interviewed nearly two hundred people who knew Rand during all periods of her life. How the claims of the book – for example, Rand was born in Russia, had a temper, broke with people, had an affair with Nathaniel, wrote Atlas Shrugged – were assertions on the level of fictitious meetings at a Buddhist temple was never explained. Most people would probably conclude that these claims were either true or false and subject to empirical testing like any other claims concerning famous people. Peikoff, in a Ford Hall Forum address in 1987, said that he would never read the book, nonetheless concurred with Schwartz’s assessment. In 2005, James Valliant wrote a dishonest hit piece, The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, against Branden’s biography and simultaneously managed to contend that the book was arbitrary but also contained numerous factual errors.
In an apparent extension of the arbitrary assertion doctrine, our authors place the allegations of Barney and Biddle into that category. “In logic, outsiders did not have grounds to consider Barney’s accusations as a reasonable hypothesis. In their context of knowledge, these accusations were arbitrary assertions. . . . they expect to be taken on faith.” But the same could be said of any response the ARI might give to these or any future allegations. If no one (other than apparently ARI insiders) is in a position to know, isn’t the ARI being arbitrary in expecting people to accept their vacuous denials of wrongdoing?
*On their Your Tube Channel (Ayn Rand Fan Club), William Swig and Scott Schiff discussed the essay at length. I am indebted to their insightful comments.